Chandler is good at his job — making money for his clients, elevating their global profile, gigging the PGA Tour, working with the media — but one of his favorite pastimes is chiding the American contingent for its middling performances at key events of late.
As client Rory McIlroy walked purposefully to the first tee on Sunday at the 111th U.S. Open, the English agent was holding court nearby, thinking out loud, mostly amusing himself.
“Another big day for Ireland, another big day for Europe,” he said, dollar signs doubtlessly dancing in his suntanned head. “Think of all the world-ranking points, going back to Europe.”
Then he laughed and did everything but dry-wash his hands like a cartoon evil genius. But levity aside, the points he made were inarguable.
As McIlroy ambled past, you could see the putter cover he used for the week peeking over the top of his golf bag. It was festooned in stars and stripes, a tribute to playing the Open in the nation’s capital.
It was the closest anything Americana, much less an actual American, got to the title.
The 22-year-old Northern Irishman cruised to a landmark victory, not just as an individual matching or shattering a dozen scoring records, but as a global trailblazer. Until Sunday, foreign-born players had never before won five modern majors in succession.
Alas, at the majors, Uncle Sam no longer is Uncle Slam.
With established U.S. stars turning grayer by the hour, internationals have claimed three of the past four Masters and British Open titles, six of the past eight U.S. Opens and three straight PGA Championships. The fifth major? Four in a row and five of the past six have been won by foreign-born players.
Tiny Northern Ireland, boasting a total population equal to Nebraska at 1.8 million, has claimed two U.S. Opens in a row. But when it comes to fans finding Americans on major leaderboards, they’re looking for red, white and clues.
“I look at it differently than the average American because there are 38 Americans in the top 100 right now, right around there, and we tend to think of the rest of the world as one country,” said network analyst David Feherty, a Northern Irishman by birth and a U.S. citizen. “There’s about 180 of them, but that’s not the way we think of it.”
As a point of fact, he is exactly correct on his world-ranking math. Then again, reasonably or not, we Yanks tend to react this way because Americans have won more majors than the rest of the world combined.
“We have close to 40 percent of the world’s best golfers here,” Feherty said. “Because one of them hasn’t won one of the last five majors is no big deal. The reason that those international players are playing so well is that they #$@*& play here.
“This is how you do it. You come here because this is where the best in the world play. It’s not an insult to America, it’s a compliment, that those people would come here to play.”
We’ve been pretty gracious hosts lately.
The low Americans at Congressional were second-year pro Kevin Chappell and veteran Robert Garrigus, who have one PGA Tour victory between them. They finished a distant T3 end never remotely contended. Anybody pick that pair in your office pool?
Tiger Woods, 35, clearly won a disproportionate share of titles and skewed the numbers, perhaps obscuring the creeping reality of why the American fortunes now feel like bankruptcy. Since undergoing knee surgery after he won the most recent of his 14 majors in mid-2008, international players have won nine of 12 slam events.
“I don’t think the state of American golf is where everyone expects it to be, but I think it shows that someone like myself can play out here, and I think it’s definitely going to end up going in the right direction sometime soon,” said Chappell, the college player of the year in 2009.
McIlroy has already been set as the favorite for the British Open, and what Yank is going to stop him? The past three Americans to win a Grand Slam title have combined to claim one other PGA Tour victory since.
The American standard bearers aren’t exactly storming castle walls. Woods is ailing and just withdrew from his own tournament next week in Philly. Phil Mickelson celebrated his 41st birthday last Thursday by hitting his first shot into a water hazard for a double-bogey. Jim Furyk was the tour player of the year in 2010 and has been invisible all season. Steve Stricker, who hasn’t won a major, might be the best bet of the bunch to break through, and he’s 44 years old.
Various theories have been espoused to explain the below-waterline drought. Englishman Pete Cowen, swing coach to several top Europeans including Lee Westwood and Henrik Stenson, said the U.S. college system teaches kids how to score, not how to play. Swing changes are discouraged because college coaches don’t want players missing several months while in transition.
Moreover, college golf is a team sport. A bad round means a player’s score gets thrown out. By then, many Europeans of similar ages are already playing developmental tours, taking their lumps, plying their trade as apprentices of a sort.
They are also learning how to win. The talent pool on the European Tour isn’t nearly as deep, so young players become more comfortable with leading and delivering victories under duress on Sunday, than young American counterparts who might contend only intermittently on the PGA circuit. All four current major champions used the European Tour as a springboard or their current home circuit.
It all sounds valid, right?
“I’m a big fan of the collegiate system here in the States. There’s no doubt it was a turning point in my career — the three years I spent here in the States — that college was a turning point.”
Who uttered those words? Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champ. In fact, of the four players from Northern Ireland to have won on the European or American tours in the past year — Michael Hoey, Darren Clarke, McDowell and McIlroy — the latter is the only one who didn’t play college golf. Although, to be truthful, Clarke bailed from Wake Forest about 10 minutes after draining his first pint.
McDowell, always eager to please, disputed that the American contingent is in dire straits, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. He sees the current state as a transitional one.
“I think American golf is probably as healthy as I’ve ever seen it in my career,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of quality young players coming through. Dustin Johnson, Bubba Watson, Rickie Fowler, Hunter Mahan — if I had the world rankings sitting in front of me I could list you more.
“These guys are quality players who are winning golf tournaments now. For a while there you had Tiger, you had Phil, obviously Steve Stricker. You really didn’t have a lot of standouts outside of the big two or three.
“I think they have a lot of talent spread across the age brackets now, and I think they’re sort of on the verge of being very strong again and winning major championships and winning globally. So I don’t think American golf is in bad shape.”
For the record, Fowler and Mahan missed the cut last week while Johnson and Watson made it on the number and never sniffed the leaderboard. Los Angeles-born Anthony Kim, anointed as a star in the making before a wrist injury derailed him, wasn’t even the low guy named Kim — he finished behind two unheralded Koreans with the same surname.
Golfweek magazine recently published a cover story detailing why a national developmental system in the States, akin to ones used in Olympic sports and some nations abroad, was possibly overdue — and that was before McIlroy romped.
Yet, are we guilty of selective hearing? Perhaps, with a capital P.
McIlroy’s win at the Quail Hollow Championship some 13 months ago started a run in which internationals won 13 of 19 events on the PGA Tour. However, beginning last fall in the FedEx Cup series, American players have won 27 of the past 35 sanctioned events, including majors.
Maybe it can all be chalked up to … bad timing?
Still, it doesn’t generally appear that the American majors drought is headed for a fast reversal anytime soon. In fact, Chandler is right — given the growing number of world ranking points on offer in Europe, thanks to the firepower of the major winners at the top of the fields, it stands to reason that more members of that tour are going to gain admittance to Grand Slam events by cracking the top 50.
Thus, the Yanks at the minute have been left to tally the moral victories — not to be confused with morale-building victories. Chappell, playing in his first major of any kind at Congressional, was happy to have a role in McIlroy’s record-wrecking show.
“It’ll be good to be somewhat a part of history,” Chappell said.
Even, like his countrymen, when reduced to a footnote.